Protecting the Rainforests: for Whom?

By Professor Chris Armstrong, Politics & International Relations

Should we protect the rainforests? Unless you are an illegal logger, most likely your answer is going to be a resounding yes. There are three excellent reasons to do so. Firstly, we are familiar with the idea that rainforests are tremendously important for their role in absorbing and storing greenhouse gases. If we were to destroy them phenomenal amounts of carbon would be released, providing a neat short-cut to ecological catastrophe. Secondly, they are remarkable havens for biodiversity. We care about wildlife itself, and we may also care about the potential medical treatments that the flora and fauna of the forests may hold the key to. Thirdly, they are havens of another kind, this time for indigenous peoples. If we think that indigenous people have a claim to maintain their distinctive ways of life, then we must be aware that deforestation will represent, for them, its own kind of catastrophe.

So most of us are convinced: deforestation is bad, and forest protection is good. Fortunately, though protecting rainforests has costs (including the opportunity costs of those who would like to develop them), mechanisms are emerging which would bankroll protection. The Global Environment Facility channels money to countries with rainforests – many, though not all of them, in South America – in order to make protection a reality. Although these facilities are chronically underfunded, they are a start.

There is, however, a fly in the ointment. Existing facilities tend to reward those who have formal rights over land, and very few of the benefits have percolated down to indigenous peoples. Moreover, funding tends to flow according to accounting procedures which value undisturbed forests most highly. This means that there is no incentive to protect biodiversity, or to protect the ways of life of indigenous peoples. There may even be an incentive to minimise biodiversity, and even to force indigenous peoples from the forest: if trees are all that count, then plants – or people! – who do not count will be squeezed out.

The challenge, then, is not only to ensure that protection is properly funded (the subject of a paper I presented recently at an excellent conference on global environmental protection), but to produce a formula for funding which properly values everything we have reason to value: trees, biodiversity more generally, and people too.

Olymponomics: politics and the measurement of Olympic economic impacts

By Will Jennings, Politics & International Relations

Blog cross-posted at The Conversation.

Since the financial blowout experienced at the Montreal 1976 Olympics, economic impact assessment has been an increasingly popular tool for host governments and organizers to justify the vast expense of major events of this sort. These methodologies are not value-free, however, and are often reliant on problematic assumptions or are used to particular political and economic ends. The recent report into the legacy of London 2012 by the government and the Mayor of London exhibits some of the typical hallmarks of political use of economic impact assessments – and their tendency to put a positive spin on the economic benefits of major events despite the uncertainties involved. Indeed, some of the claims seem quite unnecessarily outlandish: for example that “so far £9.9 billion in international trade and inward investment has been won because of the Games and Games-time promotional activity.” There must be a small dose of caution about the causal relationship between the event and subsequent flows of investment – even if these were facilitated at Olympic-badged events. To put it in context, this figure is larger than any previous official/sponsored assessment of Olympic economic impacts — by a substantial margin – while the estimated £11.5 billion gross value added of the public sector funding package is also an outlier compared to other events (see Chapter 5 of Olympic Risks, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).*

The key problems of evaluating the economic benefits of the Olympics is that it is difficult to provide counterfactuals about what would have transpired if the event had not taken place. Indeed, the background document to the report acknowledges that “…there is no counterfactual assumption related to spending the public money on anything else.” Nor is it possible to determine whether the trade and investment deals linked to Olympic-related promotions would have been secured through other channels if the Games had not taken place. London was already an iconic global city ahead of 2012, unlike many other hosts, who use the Olympics to promote themselves as a global destination – e.g. Barcelona, Sydney, Beijing. On top of this, the magnitude of the estimated gross value added to economic activity reflects the dire under-employment that existed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis – meaning that the economic modelling assumed a low level of displacement, as the Olympics absorbed spare economic capacity. The details of the report hardly makes good reading for the government, as it notes “a legacy of higher unemployment” despite the economic legacy left by the Olympics. Further, the headline figures only tell a partial story, as economic benefits – especially in terms of employment – are concentrated in London and the South East. In this respect, the impact of London 2012 has simply been to reinforce existing imbalances in the British economy – and in the economic experience of its citizens.

Even if we accept that the Olympics created long-term economic capacity, it is possible to question whether this was the optimal use of resources. Popular “input-output” methods of economic impact analysis do not differentiate between different types of economic activity, however, yet the long-term economic benefits of constructing a school or a hospital, or a train link, are quite different from those involved in building a car park or a sports venue (especially if assets are later transferred to private developers at discounted rates, removing any potential for long-term public amortization of the assets). Methods of economic impact assessment surprisingly make little meaningful distinction between gains or losses that accrue to the public and private sectors.

A final aspect of the economic impact that might be called into question is the degree to which the UK economy will see a return from its businesses positioning themselves in the market for major global event contracts as a result of their 2012 experience. Certainly since Sydney 2000 there has emerged an Olympic ‘consultocracy’ that wanders nomadically from Games to Games – selling their expertise to the highest bidder. However, most of the major firms involved in the mega-event industry are multinationals, while the individual consultocrats and trouble-shooters who are now positioned to reap the rewards of their London experience are by no means guaranteed to divert their private economic gains directly back into the UK economy (this is without venturing into the debate over global tax regimes!).

While there can be little doubt that London 2012 has had substantial economic benefits for the UK, and successful delivery of the event served to promote its reputation on the world stage, the methods of economic impact assessment are ill-equipped to deal with some of the ambiguities and uncertainties associated with mega-events and their consequences. These methodologies rarely challenge their underlying assumptions and tend to emphasise best case scenarios and headline figures, without digging deeper into the regional imbalances of the event, the flawed or exaggerated nature of some causal claims, and extraction of private economic gain from public investment – at the expense of taxpayers already battered by austerity.

*Note that there is no official estimate of the economic impact of Beijing 2008.

International Migration, Globalization, and Indifference

By Dr Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations

Pope Francis’ recent reference to the “globalization of indifference” encourages reflection on several dimensions of current international affairs. His was a call to open our hearts to the hardships of thousands of displaced people who struggle to find a better life away from their place of origin, to go from watching to engagement, to be compassionate or, as he put it, to realize that we have “forgotten how to cry.” His July 8th visit to Lampedusa, a tiny island in the south of Italy where African immigrants indefinitely wait in precarious camps to cross the European border, was the Pope’s first official trip outside Rome and a deliberate choice full of symbolic gestures: he threw flowers into the sea as a sign of mourning for those who died trying to reach the coast; he offered an open-air mass in an improvised altar made of parts of boats used by those seeking refuge in Europe; he called on politicians to alleviate the suffering and on all of us to re-focus our attention towards those who live (and die) in the margins of society.

The awakening of consciousness Pope Francis advocates echoes the plight of various contestation movements that have questioned celebratory views of democracy and global capitalism. It calls attention to one of the most neglected aspects of global flows: human mobility, which tends to be seen mainly as free circulation of workers, that is, individuals who move freely in search of better labor conditions, wages, and living standards. According to predominant liberal economic views, the market would eventually regulate international migration and bring in/out flows to an equilibrium. Obviously, this view underestimates several dimensions of the migration problem and cannot account for the politics and policies surrounding people on the move, let alone for the situation of those who are forced to migrate, cannot decide about their displacement (such as migrant children), or have minimum to no chances of building a better life at destination.

In other words, globalization studies have been generally more focused on economic and financial flows than on increasing international migration and, despite some critics, have mostly encouraged an optimistic view that tends to make us oblivious (indifferent, as the Pope would say) to the suffering of millions of people. Even when scholars engage in the study of contestation, their empirical material is usually provided by the leaders or groups that have managed to organize and become visible and vocal, the institutional settings that enable some strategies of resistance to flourish, or the (more fashionable) transnational networks that presumably shape political activism today. Especially in the field of international relations, we are still indifferent to the anonymous voices and particular narratives of those whose lives are really at stake in a number of diverse, uncertain, and often dire migration journeys. Is this an ideological or methodological shortcoming? How long can we afford to disregard the complexities and urgencies involved in international migration?

Apropos of time, I have just listened to a number of distinguished historians debating the meaning and prospects of the notions of time, memory, and history in a lively meeting in Ghent last week. This reminded me of several studies on the non-lineal and non-homogenous idea of time migrants usually hold. Trying to make sense of uncertainty and risk, of lives that are neither here nor there, and permanently dreaming of a return with multiple meanings but no exact date, migrants oscillate between memory and forgetting as a way of coping with the realities of displacement. Their notions of time and history seem to be unrelated to the modernist ones that we usually use to analyze globalization. Is it that their views are different or are our concepts detached from their reality?

When democratic innovation meets realpolitik

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

Fresh off the boat from Australia last month to start my new position here at Southampton, I was a little surprised to see domestic Australian politics make international headlines. Predictably, though, it was for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, the culmination of the Kevin-and-Julia saga just exemplifies what a sorry state party politics in Australia is in. Of course, I don’t expect other readers of this blog are avid followers of Australian politics. But the issues on display in this latest crisis, while perhaps more visceral (Aussies call a spade a ‘bloody shovel’, after all) and often more public in the Australian context, are much like the issues in Britain and other advanced industrial democracies. Indeed, almost everywhere there is declining trust in the institutions of representation. And so a study that colleagues (Simon Niemeyer and Carolyn Hendriks) and I published in the latest issue of the Australian Journal of Political Science, might be of interest to those beyond the Lucky Country (click here to view).

In the paper, we examine the reaction to a proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election. Citizens’ Assemblies, by way of quick explanation, belong to a family of institutional innovations based on participatory and deliberative democratic ideals. Made up of a cross-section of the lay public, they are designed to foster inclusive, informed and considered discussion. The specific proposal put forward by Julia Gillard was for 150 ordinary Australians to meet regularly over the course of a year, listen to expert advice on climate change, debate the issue, and come up with recommendations for the government. This idea met with such contempt and disapproval that it was later crowned ‘the biggest political miscalculation of the year’. But why was everyone so opposed to it? And what does that say about the prospects of deepening deliberative citizen engagement on critical issues like climate change in Australia and elsewhere?

In this paper, we set about answering these questions by analysing the reaction to the proposal of Australia’s ‘opinion leaders’—politicians, industry and environmental stakeholders, and newspaper columnists. We found that many of their criticisms represented a misunderstanding of how democratic innovations like the Citizens’ Assembly operate (i.e. ‘Citizens can’t understand a complex issue like climate change!’ Actually, they mostly can) and what role they play in representative democracy (i.e. ‘It bypasses the democratic process!’ Actually, it contributes to it). The by-and-large reactionary, ill-informed nature of these criticisms hints at broader problems in the public debate. But the most damaging criticisms of the Citizens’ Assembly proposal related to its deployment in a complex and highly partisan political context. Indeed, many actors saw it as a way of the government appearing to do something on a crucial issue without having to actually do anything at all. We are not interested, in the paper, in deciphering the validity of this perspective (although I suspect all the authors have some sympathy for this criticism of the proposal). Instead, what matters is the perception itself; it speaks volumes about the pervasive cynicism surrounding party politics, and it hints at the difficulty of instigating democratic innovation on such a difficult and controversial issue.

What we ultimately argue, then, is that this backlash vividly shows how innovations like the CA need to be far better integrated into their broader political context. Only then will they have any chance of contributing to deeper, more deliberative citizen engagement.

Polling Observatory #26: Politics becalmed as summer approaches

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Cross-posted at

This is part of a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

As the political hurricane of the May local elections has quickly become a distant memory, with hostilities easing as parliament heads towards its summer recess, support for the parties has seen a slight unwinding of some recent developments. In the last month the media, and the public, appear to have lost interest in Nigel Farage and his party, with support for UKIP having fallen to 12.8% (down almost two percentage points on our estimate last month). This is the first time UKIP support has seen a monthly drop for several months – suggesting its challenge to the main parties has eased temporarily at least. The Conservatives, in contrast, have seen their political fortunes improve slightly, with their support rebounding to 30.0%, up almost two percentage points on last month. This figure still puts them far down on their standing in the polls at the start of 2012, and there is clearly a long way to go before they have any chance of forming the next government. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have edged up slightly in the polls to 8.3%, though their support has seen little meaningful movement since the end of 2010, which does not portend well for their hopes at the next general election.

Despite persistent talk of Labour’s struggle to gain traction in making the political weather and convincing the public that it offers a credible alternative to the current government, it retains a healthy lead over the Conservatives of almost eight percentage points, with its support standing at 37.6%.

This currently becalmed state of British politics arguably reflects the high degree of uncertainty about the country’s future, combined with wider public disillusionment about politics. Talk of economic ‘green shoots’ is clearly premature, although there are some signs that the worst may be over and voters may be starting to get the feel-good factor back. There is much potential for the political weather to change again, with the upcoming Scottish Referendum and continued debate over an EU referendum leaving much uncertainty over where the UK will stand in May 2015, when the parties are next due to face the electorate. Just to what extent austerity will change the British economy and politics is unclear. What is unquestionable, however, is that citizens have become deeply disenchanted with politics and mainstream parties. In a recent YouGov poll for the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southamptona remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, while 72% agreed with the suggestion that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”. Interestingly, older voters were even more negative about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. It is no wonder, then, that all the parties are struggling to convince anything close to a majority of the public that they have the capability and strength of character to make a difference.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Policy Agendas in British Politics

A new book, Policy Agendas in British Politics, by Peter John (UCL), Anthony Bertelli (University of South Carolina, USA), Will Jennings (University of Southampton) and Shaun Bevan (MZES, University of Mannheim, Germany) is published today. Using data from the UK Policy Agendas Project, It traces the attention of British government to different policy topics since 1945, showing how issues such as the economy, international affairs, crime and immigration have risen and fallen on the agenda. The book throws new light on the key points of change in British politics, such as Thatcherism and New Labour. Building on existing approaches to agenda-setting (incrementalism, the issue attention cycle and the punctuated equilibrium model) it develops a new approach labelled focused adaptation whereby policy-makers respond to structural shifts in the underlying pattern of attention.